Armand Hammer Are Accidentally One Step Ahead

The rap duo of billy woods and ELUCID tap into the zeitgeist

Photo: Alexander Richter

BY Daniel SylvesterPublished Sep 26, 2023

Armand Hammer possess several superpowers, and perhaps the most fascinating is their ability to position themselves in the centre of the zeitgeist — even if it's completely unintentional.

Although they've been making music together since 2013, the duo of billy woods and ELUCID were largely introduced to audiences outside underground hip-hop circles with their 2020 LP, Shrines. If the LP's claustrophobic beats and flow didn't connect with a locked-down public amid the pandemic, its cover surely did — featuring a photo of Ming, a Siberian–Bengal tiger confined to a single room of a Harlem apartment complex. Just to solidify this point, their 2021 follow-up, Haram (with the Alchemist), found the New Yorkers taking on police brutality and white supremacy months before Black Lives Matter protests permeated from the streets to Starbucks boardrooms.

Arriving September 29, their latest LP, We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, drops just as January 6 seditionists are being sentenced to lengthy prison sentences — namely Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who first came to infamy for, yes, selling fake diabetic test strips.

"You know, I've never heard that one," says woods when Exclaim! mentions Tarrio's criminal history with diabetic test strips. "It has no connection. It's just a sign that's in our face every day when we walk outside."

Inadvertent or not, the duo is poised to usher themselves from the zeitgeist to an ever-growing audience. Full-length number six drops just as their 2021 Earl Sweatshirt-feature "Falling Out the Sky" racks up millions of streams and woods's collaboration with Kenny Segal, Maps, remains one of the best reviewed works of 2023.

"I will take some respect and some universal critical acclaim and some financial success. All of them in one grab bag would be great," beams woods.

When asked about keeping the momentum going, woods says they intended to push their craft forward: "We definitely went about recording it in a different way, all different processes and people, and built songs in different ways."

Bringing in Willie Green, house engineer for wood's label Backwoodz Studioz, the duo created the album's 15 songs by melding guest producer tracks (including contributions from El-P, DJ Haram and Steele Tipped Dove) with live sessions featuring a diverse set of musicians like bassist Adi Meyerson, marimba player Jane Boxall and keyboardist Max Heath.

"I don't really involve myself in records where I can't have a hand in the production," says ELUCID. "Because I take pride in what it sounds like, it's an honour to sit down next to Willie Green and be able to convey ideas and him and make things happen technically that I don't have the knowledge base for, but I know what I want it to sound like."

He continues, "We started with JPEGMAFIA beats, and I picked through what was given to me. We made songs, we edited songs, we changed directions, we decided to work with musicians, made some calls, brought them in the studio and kind of built it around Shabaka Hutchings." The addition of the British jazz giant, mainly known for his sax playing, helped give much of the sprawling LP's 15 songs a rich sheen. "That was kind of like a no-brainer to have Shabaka involved," says ELUCID. "He was completely down."

Adding in guest verses from a diverse group of musicians — with highlights coming from Pink Siifu, Junglepussy, Moor Mother and Soul Glo's Pierce Jordan — delivers listeners another layer of adventurous sounds and moods, ranging from steely and skeletal ("Trauma Mic") to hypnotic and intoxicating ("Don't Lose Your Job").

"A lot of that was just in-the-room chemistry between players," says ELUCID. "We had hours' worth of jam sessions recorded. We took that and sent it to some of our favourite producers. They were able to chop and build new productions from what was recorded in that day."

Despite the sonic expansiveness of We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, the true character of the LP comes from woods and ELUCID doing what they've always done best. The slinky "The Gods Must Be Crazy," spills over with identity politics, while "Woke Up and Asked Siri How I'm Gonna Die" is the best example of their bent senses of humour. 

Call Armand Hammer's labyrinthine set of tracks the future of underground hip-hop, call them harbingers of the zeitgeist — just don't call this a new direction for the duo to continue exploring. "If anything, we'll probably go in some totally other direction immediately after this one," laughs Woods.

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